What are the Alberta oil sands?
The Alberta oil sands are a large deposit of Bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil. The Bitumen is a mixture of a few grains of sand surrounded by a layer of water and a film of bitumen. The Alberta oil sands are divided into three parts The Athabasca Area, The Cold Lake Area, and The Peace River Area. The oil must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Oil sand can be found in several locations around the globe, including Venezuela, the United States and Russia. Alberta oil sands are known to be the second most effective producers in the world by producing 1.4 million barrels a day.
Oil sands production requires an extremely large quantity of water. In general it takes about 2 to 4.5 barrels of water, most of which is withdrawn from the Athabasca River, to produce one barrel of oil. While much of this water is recycled and used many times over, the oil sands use more water per year than the entire city of Calgary. The key policy problem regarding water for this purpose is the need to allocate water supplies in a way that properly balances oil sands production needs with ecosystem and human needs in the region. While the amount of water consumed per barrel of oil produced has been declining, a 2006 Government of Alberta report warned that there simply may not be enough available water to meet the needs of all planned oil sands projects while maintaining adequate stream flows.
More than any other environmental issue, the Alberta government is increasingly being criticized for its approach to climate change. Currently, Alberta is responsible for one-third of Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs). Specifically, the oil sands are Canada’s largest-growing source of GHGs, and these emissions are expected to increase substantially in the future. It is clear the Alberta government’s intention is to allow total GHG emissions from the oil sands to continue to rise. It recently released a GHG plan that relies heavily on intensity-based targets , which focus on reductions in emissions per unit of production, instead of setting absolute limits on total emissions. The Government of Alberta’s long-term target is a 14 percent reduction in GHGs, below 2005 levels, by 2050. Its most ambitious goal is to have emissions stabilized by 2020.
The provincial government, the current federal government’s climate change plan considers carbon capture and storage to be the solution to the oil sands’ ever-increasing emissions, but the concept has yet to be proven technologically or economically feasible. While recent funding announcements for carbon capture research are important, the amount of funding allocated falls far short of what is required to jump-start an industry-wide capture-and-storage program. If carbon capture and storage continues to form the foundation of Alberta’s climate change plan, finding a way to overcome the large associated financial and technological hurdles will prove extremely challenging.
The Alberta government’s lack of progress on mitigating oil sands emissions may prove to be a political liability in the future. Already, vocal international environmentalists have begun targeting the oil sands on the issue of climate change. As perhaps the global environmental issue of the 21st century gains increasing international attention, Alberta’s ability to ignore this growing chorus of voices may prove impossible. At the same time, many predict that a large political showdown between the provincial and federal government is looming; the belief is that it’s only a matter of time before the federal government moves to aggressively limit industrial sources of GHGs in Canada. Recently, the Federal Court of Canada struck down the environmental assessment of a proposed major oil sands project, arguing the project did not have an adequate plan to deal with its GHG emissions.
The Government of Alberta’s ability to continue developing the oil sands while largely ignoring growing concerns about climate change, both in the domestic and international political arenas, is uncertain. Public attention to climate change issues is only now beginning to focus on the oil sands, and this attention is only likely to increase
Oil sands development causes large-scale spatial disturbances to Alberta’s northern boreal forest . According to critics, the cumulative effects of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and species loss caused by exploration, open pit mines, in-situ developments, urban development, forestry, and road clearing in the region are not being adequately managed or even considered.
In April 2008, the impact on habitat received widespread media attention when hundreds of migrating ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond. There is also concern about links between habitat loss and declines in populations of at-risk species, such as caribou. The Alberta government, as articulated in its Mineable Oil Sands Strategy, has always maintained this disturbance is “temporary” and that production sites will be reclaimed when projects are completed. Provincial requirements for reclamation, however, are considered by environmentalists to be an inadequate means of ensuring that reclaimed land resembles a functioning ecosystem. In this context, reclaimed land is not actually required to resemble the site as it existed prior to development. Environmentalists point out that ecologically complex wetlands will be replaced with dry tree plantations, though there is uncertainty as to whether trees will even be able to grow on the sites used by oil sands projects.
To date, only one oil sands project has been awarded a reclamation certificate, which means that the reclaimed land has been formally approved by the provincial government. Critics were quick to point out, however, that this site was only minimally disturbed by oil sands activity and is not reflective of the massive land disturbances that take place in most oil sands project sites. Despite uncertainty as to whether the land base can be adequately reclaimed and how much money this will cost in the future, approvals for new oil sands projects continue to be granted. There is concern, however, particularly among environmental groups, that the Alberta government (and thus taxpayers) will be stuck with the future cost of reclamation. Though operators are required to provide the government with “financial security” that can be used if the land is not adequately reclaimed, it is the oil sands companies that tell the provincial government how much this deposit should be. It is also unclear whether this amount of money will be close to the amount required for ecologically sound reclamation, if needed